China’s Parallel Online Universe
Image Credit: Photobucket / Blaque_07

China’s Parallel Online Universe

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As the showdown escalated between Chinese security forces and residents of Wukan, where villagers revolted against the Chinese Communist Party, you didn’t find as much discussion of the incident in Chinese social media as you might expect. And it wasn’t only because the internet was shut off in the town.

It was also a result of China’s development of a set of “social media clones” that ably mimic the functions of the most popular, internationally recognized social media applications, such as Facebook and Twitter. The replicas, however, come with a major catch: they systematically comply with the Chinese Communist Party’s strict censorship requirements.

This innovative approach embraces, rather than resists, technological advances. It satisfies the growing demand of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens for social media tools, reducing incentives for them to circumvent the “Great Firewall,” while still enabling the Communist Party to control what they say to each other on matters of political consequence.

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Here’s how this critical piece of China’s modern censorship mosaic works.

First, the big transnational social media players – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – are blocked in China. This clears the playing field for homegrown firms, such as Renren, which provides Facebook-type functions, Youku.com, a YouTube-like video sharing service, and Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging service.

These services are then required to have automated or manual monitoring and censorship mechanisms in place to quickly identify and delete user-generated postings or disable accounts that run afoul of the Communist Party’s ever-changing censorship red lines. It’s a daily reality for Chinese bloggers, academics, activists, and even ordinary users to discover a posting deleted, their account locked, or their “friends” unable to view what they have just shared.

The case of Sina Weibo, which boasts some 250 million registered users, is instructive. Launched in 2009, it’s similar to Twitter in that it allows users to post 140-character “tweets” and gather followers. Since coming on the scene, the company has enjoyed explosive growth and the service’s millions of users have become an important audience for a diverse range of interests.

But in the same way this microblogging service can enable commerce, entertainment and personal communication, it’s also increasingly used to share information and commentary unwelcome to the ruling Communist Party. To keep pace, Sina Weibo reportedly employs some 700 people to perform around the clock monitoring of millions of tweets.

Despite Sina Weibo’s vast user base, it represents just a small corner of China’s parallel social media universe. Instead of MSN messenger, there’s QQ, which downloads automated keyword filtering upon installation. Instead of Wikipedia, there is Baidu’s Baike. Instead of Blogspot, every major web portal has its own blogging service.

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